This was supposed to be the weekend that would have brought the Premier League title race back to life. Back in December, when fans at Eastlands where lamenting the premature culmination of their team’s latest continental excursion, the sole comforting thought in their mind would have centered around the inadvertent advantage that Manchester City had gained in the defense of their Premier League crown in terms of a less crowded fixture list. Few days later when rivals Manchester United got paired with Spanish giants Real Madrid in the 1st knockout round, City fans could have been forgiven for marking down the second weekend of February as a decisive milestone in the title race.
While City had a relatively simple task of visiting lowly Southampton, United were to host Everton – the team that dealt a severe blow to United’s title aspirations last season – just days before travelling to Madrid. Little did those fans know that the weekend may indeed prove to be decisive but if so, it would be for all the wrong reasons from their perspective. On Saturday evening, City suffered a shock reversal at St. Mary’s; a day later, United ruthlessly pressed home their advantage with a routine 2-0 victory to establish a 12 point lead at the top of the table. To put this into perspective, the last time United enjoyed this big a lead was back in May of 2001. And while mathematically the title race is far from over, as things stand it will take a very brave, or stupid, punter to bet on Nemanja Vidic not lifting the Premier League trophy come May.
The manner of City’s capitulation would have been particularly galling to manager Roberto Mancini who was understandably scathing in his assessment of his team’s performance. Inexplicable blunders from two senior members of his squad – Joe Hart and Gareth Barry – virtually handed the game on a platter to the impressive Saints, who had taken an early lead in the game before the aforementioned gaffes on either side of halftime. First, England goalkeeper Hart allowed a routine shot through his body for Steven Davis to poke in. Next up it was Barry’s turn as the midfielder side-footed a low cross into his own net even though he was not under any apparent pressure. Although Edin Dzeko did pull a goal back for the champions before the break, City never threatened to spoil Mauricio Pochettino’s first victory party as Southampton manager. Worryingly for City, a number of their stars looked jaded towards the end with the likes of David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero simply going through the motions rather than striving to put Southampton under a sustained spell of pressure.
For their opponents’ this was a result to savour. The club may have lost certain amount of goodwill in the wake of Nigel Adkins’ sacking but there is no point in denying the difference in the level of performance brought about by his replacement. The high pressing style of Pochettino had already yielded a respectable draw against Everton and barely deserved defeat to Manchester United apart from the draw against Wigan where Saints conceded a late equalizer. But this result – dismantling of the champions – will now surely make the rest of league sit up and notice. Based on this, there really should not be any reason for Southampton not plying their trade in Premier League next season.
If City had held out any hope for Everton doing them a favour, they were all banished within the first half of the game at Old Trafford. United got off to the perfect start when Ryan Giggs scored his first league goal of the season and thereby maintained his astonishing record of scoring in Premier League every season. Robin van Persie then went on to make amends for an earlier glaring miss by doubling United’s advantage just before the interval. While Everton had fought back valiantly from a two goal deficit here last season, this time around the hosts saw off the second half with minimum fuss. To counter the threat of Marouane Fellaini, the man who had caused United much grief in preceding fixtures, Sir Alex put Phil Jones on man-marking duty and the move paid off spectacularly with the Belgian hardly getting a look in. The fact that Jones had to be withdrawn in the second half due to an ankle injury would have been the only cause for concern in an otherwise perfect afternoon for United.
The defeat at Old Trafford means Everton have now won only once in their last five fixtures. At the end of a weekend in which Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal were all victorious, the Toffees lie 6 points and 2 places off the top four. A look at the list of remaining fixtures will not bring much solace to the Goodison Park faithful as trips to Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea – three teams apart from United against whom Moyes is yet to record an away victory – beckon.
Villa move out of relegation zone as QPR look doomed
Down towards the bottom of the table, Aston Villa scraped a vital 2-1 win against West Ham United at home on Sunday. With Wigan and Reading both losing on Saturday, the Birmingham side went into the clash against their claret & blue counterparts from London knowing a win would lift them from the bottom three. Andreas Weimann missed a glorious chance early on to give Villa the lead but Charles N’Zogbia stepped up to the plate in the 2nd half by first winning a penalty – duly converted by Christian Benteke – and then scored himself from a neatly struck free-kick. The Frenchman’s goal would ultimately prove to be decisive as the Hammers pulled one back through an Ashley Westwood own goal but failed in their attempts to snatch a leveler thanks to Brad Guzan in the Villa goal. The importance of the win was not lost on manager Paul Lambert as he hoped that with this result his team has broken the proverbial camel’s back.
But while Lambert would have breathed a sigh of relief after the weekend, his counterpart at Queen’s Park Rangers, Harry Redknapp might do well to start preparing his side for Championship next season. The bottom club Rangers suffered their heaviest league defeat since the appointment of Redknapp as Swansea thrashed them 4-1 at the Liberty Stadium. Rangers had been undefeated in their previous five league games prompting murmurs of a great escape but this defeat would be a huge blow – maybe a terminal one – to the team’s chances of survival. An yawning seven point gap separates Rangers from safety now and it is difficult to see how even Redknapp can inspire his troops to make up the deficit.
Tottenham 2-1 Newcastle
Chelsea 4-1 Wigan
Norwich 0-0 Fulham
Stoke 2-1 Reading
Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal
Swansea 4-1 QPR
Southampton 3-1 Man City
Aston Villa 2-1 West Ham
Man Utd 2-0 Everton